Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban. Picture: REUTERS
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban. Picture: REUTERS

Budapest — Prime Minister Viktor Orban vowed to move by Tuesday towards giving up his right to rule Hungary indefinitely by decree, which some critics had warned would turn the country into a de facto dictatorship.

The government will submit a bill to parliament to end the regime that the premier’s allies approved in March, when they argued that he needed unrestrained powers to deal with the coronavirus crisis.

By the first week of June, MPs plan to revoke the measures, which stoked concern over democratic backsliding from the EU’s executive commission. The administration in Budapest was quick to brand the occasion as proof that its critics were wrong.

“We continue to expect that those who, out of ignorance or malice, joined in spreading fake news when the government worked to save lives, apologise now to the Hungarian people and draw the appropriate conclusions,” justice minister Judit Varga wrote in a Facebook post on Monday.

Hungary, which joined the EU in 2004, became the first member of the trading bloc to lose its status as a democracy this month in an annual survey of countries by Freedom House, a rights watchdog based in Washington D.C. Hungary is now classified as a “hybrid regime” between a democracy and an autocracy.

While Orban and his aides have rejected accusations that the emergency powers were a violation of the EU’s democratic norms, the bloc continues to probe whether the government is upholding the rule of law. Many of the initiatives that the prime minister passed via decrees may remain in effect.

They include the halving of financial support for political parties and seizing tax revenue in some cities, policies that disproportionately hurt the opposition and the municipalities it controls. Orban also retains a two-thirds parliamentary supermajority, allowing his ruling party to unilaterally pass or change any law.

“Surrendering rule-by-decree is a great communications ploy by Orban,” said Peter Kreko, MD of Political Capital, a research institute in Budapest. “In reality it’s just a technical question. The past two months have shown that it’s not the main engine behind Hungary’s increasingly rapid slide towards authoritarianism.”

Since March 30, when parliament greenlighted the decree regime, ruling party MPs have also approved a range of measures to further Orban’s self-styled illiberal agenda. They included laws criminalising the “distortion” of facts — which triggered more than 100 police investigations — and banning legal gender change. The government has also given away state property, including a villa, to the premier’s allies.

Lorinc Meszaros, a boyhood friend of Orban whom opposition parties accuse of managing business interests on the prime minister’s behalf, has been particularly favoured.

A government entity bought Meszaros’s unprofitable coal plant, which the cabinet estimated needed a $1bn overhaul. A contract for a $2bn Chinese-backed rail development project connecting Budapest and Belgrade — which had been criticised for its lack of transparency and cost — was restricted as classified information for 10 years.

Meszaros’s company is part of the consortium building it. Orban has denied having business links with Meszaros.

“There’s been a raft of measures rammed through in the past two months relating to corruption and the stripping of rights,” opposition MP Bernadett Szel told a parliamentary committee on Monday.

Bloomberg

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